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[HanCinema's Film Review] "State-authorized Textbook"

2017/12/09 | 141 views | Permalink

You might expect "State-authorized Textbook" to just be about how Park Geun-hye's government attempted to mandate a conservatively aligned national history textbook curriculum. But before the documentary can get that far, there's a lot of background material that needs to be covered. The story ends up starting, in all places, Japan, because Park Geun-hye's system of nationalized textbooks was actually based on the existing Japanese model.

The irony should be immediately obvious. Intuitively speaking the Korean version of history is highly at odds with the Japanese version of history. The Koreans see themselves as the victims of Japanese aggression, while the Japanese see the entire Korean Occupation as being an inevitability of the imperialist politics of the era. What's more, the proposed Korean textbooks are in some places even more sympathetic to the Japanese version of events than even the Japanese textbooks are, asking students to consider the situation from the Japanese point of view, implicitly deemphasizing the tangible results of the actions made by the Japanese Empire.

But the new South Korean textbook regimen was not designed with the intention of rehabilitating Japan's international image. The textbooks were intended as apologism for pre-democratic South Korean governments which had been explicitly designed on the Japanese imperialist model. In order to paint a positive picture of Park Geun-hye's father Park Chung-hee, it's unavoidable to have to also paint a positive picture of the Japanese institutions that he was trying to imitate.

And as is the case with all imperial empires, that means hiding evidence of alternatives or active resistance to said "inevitable" ideas. Domestic opposition to South Korea's dictator has to be minimized or even erased. The Jeju Uprising in particular is given special attention, as it involved outright massacres far worse than anything North Korean Communists had been accused of doing at the time. Although really, aside from tangible historical facts, the entire notion of debate itself is antithetical to the conservative South Korean origin myth. Because there was no debate at the time any of these unpopular policies were enacted.

Nor, it would seem, did Park Geun-hye seem to think they warranted debate in the modern day either. There's an entire extended section of live footage that just consists of police using a fire hose to violently repress protestors of the textbook controversy. In a rather unsettling prelude, a man fights to prevent the police from connecting their hose to a fire hydrant, because it is in fact illegal for anyone aside from the fire department to access water from a fire hydrant without an explicit permit.

"State-authorized Textbook" is, for all its complex discussion on the history of nationalist textbooks, really just a stark reminder that when the state authorizes textbooks, that's not where it stops. A state that wants to control history is in fact a state that wants to control everything, even when that means ignoring its own laws. It's one of the many ways the Korean history textbook controversies are in retrospect an obvious predictor of the massive protests which ultimately ousted Park Geun-hye from office.

Review by William Schwartz

"State-authorized Textbook" is directed by Baek Seung-woo.

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